Partner Profile: SEEQS in Honolulu, HI

SEEQS: the School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability is a public charter school in Honolulu, HI serving students in grades 6-8 that opened in 2013. SEEQS exists to foster the next generation of systems thinkers, environmental advocates, and community leaders in Hawaiʻi and beyond. SEEQS’s methodology is embedded in the structure and schedule of the school day itself; students begin every day with community building and play in their advisories or physical activity groups, followed by content courses, and ending with a two-hour project-based learning block called EQS, or Essential Questions of Sustainability. EQS is the cornerstone of the SEEQS model, as it allows students to engage in real-world learning that emphasizes the practical applications of the content courses as they relate to modern issues of sustainability that directly impact their communities. With all of this in mind, SEEQS’s Portrait of a Graduate is a student who continuously reflects on and utilizes the five SEEQS Sustainability Skills: Managing Effectively, Communicating Powerfully, Collaborating Productively, Reasoning Analytically, and Thinking Systemically. Using these Sustainability Skills, SEEQS Students, or SEEQers, can move on to become stewards of Planet Earth and healthy, effective citizens of the world. 

This framework of interconnected skills that comprise a sustainability-focused mindset is what students are defending as they finish 8th grade. SEEQS worked with Envision Learning Partners early in its developing stages to build out a Portfolio Defense process that felt authentic to the school’s community-centered values and vision for a sustainable future. Students select five different projects from across their three years at SEEQS that exemplify their growth and understanding of the five Sustainability Skills in the Portfolio. After successfully completing the Portfolio, students choose two of the five skills to focus on for the Defense presentation to a panel of faculty, community guests, and a 7th grade peer. 

Over time, SEEQS has refined its Portfolio Defense system to pull out the Portfolio as its own important piece of work that stands on its own before the Defense process. We learned from Envision the analogy of “the Portfolio as a resume and the Defense as an interview,” and we worked with students to really think about a resume that stands on its own. 

Another crucial series of iterations in SEEQS’s Portfolio Defense system has been its multi-stage onboarding and calibration process. Faculty panelists begin preparing months in advance with a series of orientation sessions, delving into the rubric, collectively evaluating and discussing previous years’ portfolios, and coming to a consensus about the attributes of high-quality work that are most impactful in a successful Portfolio Defense. The school has also spent years building a database of willing and able external panelists (community partners, sustainability experts, educators from other schools, etc.) and by doing so, providing a form of professional development to others. 

SEEQS’s next goal is to “indigenize” the Portfolio Defense process to be more expansive and inclusive of cultural values in Hawaiʻi. They plan to do this by working with a number of Hawaiian-focused charter schools that also implement culminating performance assessments.

Every year, 8th graders have meaningful and profound things to say about their learning experiences when given the opportunity to reflect on it. They read and hear amazing quotes from students during their defenses every year that they document and hold onto; this record includes statements like the one below from Ansel B., class of 2023: 

“Before I came to SEEQS, I didn’t care as much, but over my time at SEEQS I’ve started to see that the world isn’t just this nebulous idea; it’s the people and places around us, and a major step to being a steward of planet Earth is to care about the world around you.”

The impact that Portfolio Defense has had on SEEQS students is immense. Many alumni and parents reflect both during and after the process about the value of the reflections and skills that the process aids in growing. One parent of an alumni, Lisa W., shared this testimony after seeing her son successfully present his portfolio: 

“The middle school years are especially filled with doubt as they try to fit in with their peers and start to question who they are. Creating the space and requiring them to reflect on and recognize this growth in themselves at such a young age is such a huge building block in knowing, loving and appreciating who they are. The satisfaction of completing such a rigorous assignment, watching the doubts and nervousness transform into relief and celebration was so uplifting. Then seeing the subtle shift in their energy, a little less self doubt, that little more confidence – was priceless.” 

Even with so many developments and changes to their process over the last ten years, SEEQS has bigger plans ahead. As they build out a high school, they plan to follow a student’s development over a longer period of time by repeating the Portfolio Defense process in grades 10 and 12. Beyond reflecting on just their growth in the Sustainability Skills in 8th grade, high school SEEQers will have to demonstrate proficiency in two of the five skills in 10th grade, then all five by the end of their SEEQS career. Through internships, community action projects, and other opportunities to become deeply involved in real-world issues, SEEQS students will have assembled an impressive collection of advocacy and research that will prepare them for whatever comes next.

Hear more about SEEQS, including a more about our prior work together, on this episode of the Learner-Centered Collaborative Podcast: Keeping Humanity at the Center of Assessment with Buffy Cushman-Patz, SEEQS Executive Director.

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